How To

A (final?) upgrade to my 2013 iMac

Yes, my main computer is still my late-2013 iMac. It’s still great as my photo editing and video editing (including 4K) machine. How is that possible? It’s simple: it was top of the line when it came out, with a maxed out processor and video processor. The rest was upgraded along the way. My latest upgrade, as I suggested in my previous post on the subject, is the replacement of my Fusion Drive setup (HDD + NVME) with an SSD. I wanted a big SSD, so I could fit all my regular work on the computer, only resorting to external hard drives for the big photo and video files. I also wanted to bypass the whole argument of whether to split or not to split my Mac’s Fusion Drive.

I waited for the SSD prices to come down, so I could get a 4TB SSD at a decent price, which happened in late 2020. I got a SanDisk Ultra 3D NAND SSD at 314 Euro (at the time). Now it’s at $470.

Back in January, I set to work on the upgrade. Those of you who’ve opened up iMacs released from 2012 onward know how much “fun” it is to pry open the adhesive strips that hold the display affixed to the aluminum body. I’ve bypassed all that crap, given how many times I’ve had to open up my iMac, and I use four strips of black electrical tape to hold the display to the case at each of its four corners. It works. It’s not pretty, but it’s not ugly, particularly if you cut the four strips equally and neatly, and you affix them at fairly exact points. You can’t even see them from the front of the computer. The display is black, the tape is black, it blends right in. You only spot them from the back. Anyway, it’s a lot easier for me to open up my iMac than it is for those who stubbornly cling to using the adhesive strips every time (there’s a joke in there somewhere).

After I opened it, it looked a bit grungy (the fan pulls in a lot of air and dust), and it had been almost a couple of years since I’d last cleaned it thoroughly, so I decided to take the heatsink assembly off the motherboard and replace the thermal paste — give it one last proper once-over, so to speak.

Off came the NVME card and its adapter. Now you can have a proper look at that supposed metal mount for the Apple SSD, which on this iMac is simply set with adhesive on the motherboard. As I said previously, it’s a design flaw, more like an afterthought. There are circuits on the other side of the motherboard going right under the mount, so there’s no way they could have put a proper mount with a flange there. The application of the adhesive was cleaner from the factory, but when I worked on it things got messier.

So now, I have no more NVMe SSD, no more Apple SSD, no more Fusion Drive, just one big SSD, plus my external drives. I figured it’d be a simpler setup, and it is.

Little did I know when I decided to be thorough with my cleaning, that it was going to be more of an adventure than I bargained for… First, I should set up the double-whammy scenario by saying that the way the heatsink assembly attaches to the motherboard is one of the most awkward and accident-prone setups in hardware design history. If I had put a cuss-count device on my desk as I worked on this stage of the process, and more so, every time I worked on this stage of the process, I’d have surely racked up some serious numbers. Now for the second part of the double-whammy: the way the CPU connects to the socket, which I guess is still part of the heatsink clusterfuck, since the CPU doesn’t sit in its socket without the heatsink, and when you attach the heatsink, the CPU can slide around in its socket, possibly sitting crooked and bending the feck out of the little socket connectors, each of which have specific connections to make and cannot short with each other and cannot be bent in weird ways… aaaaargh, aaaaaargh, well, you get the picture.

So I go through my whole spiel, clean everything up, put everything back together, including the heatsink assembly, tighten up all the screws, put the display back on, confident as ever, and instead of the Apple startup chime, I hear three nasty beeps. The iMac doesn’t boot up. Nothing. I go online and everyone’s posted about the RAM modules not sitting right, about various connectors on the motherboard not being connected properly, not sitting right in their sockets, etc., but EVERYONE forgets about the biggest damned connector on the motherboard not sitting properly in its socket, namely, the CPU! It turned out the reason my iMac wasn’t booting up was the reason no one was talking about: during the heatsink re-assembly, which requires you to do acrobatic work with the motherboard while holding the heatsink in place, flipping and turning the damned thing more than a burned pancake, the CPU somehow shifted about (which it shouldn’t do, because it’s got a very specific spot in there, but it still does, because you have to hold the heatsink over it with your fingers as you flip the motherboard to gain access to the screws from the backside and tighten those as you hold more screws on the other side with your fingers as you tighten them from the other side… anyway, this is so badly designed it’s bound to go wrong, and it definitely went wrong for me.

Because I couldn’t find any help for this online, I had to take the whole computer apart while carefully examining every connector and every piece that slid into another piece. Sure enough, after I took apart the heatsink assembly, I found the problem.

I present to you before and after photos of the CPU socket. The after photo (on the right) may not be perfect, but it works, and it’s after sitting there for about an hour with needle-nose tweezers and a magnifying lens, trying to bend the damned things back into shape and making sure they don’t touch each other.

After straightening those bent nose hairs with the tweezers, I began the re-assembly process. Keep in mind I had to clean off the thermal paste and re-apply it (always a fun task). When I tightened up the heatsink screws, that’s when I noticed that one of them was sliding in and out of its threaded socket, which is a big no-no. It means the threads have worn off, which is bound to happen given how much tension the Apple designers designed into the back bracket that holds the heatsink to the motherboard. It’s likely designed to work 2-3 times, and after that it’s anyone’s guess when the threads will strip off.

So what did this mean? I had to find a heatsink assembly on eBay, one that came with all the screws. If you’re also looking for one, be careful, some people only sell the heatsinks, and the set of screws is separate. I wanted the whole thing just in case something else might break on it. I ordered it on the 20th of January from someone in Italy, and because of the COVIDiocy rules in place in Europe it only arrived earlier this month, not quite but almost TWO MONTHS after placing the order.

In the meantime I wanted my computer up and running, so that same night, I took the risk and re-assembled the heatsink with only three working screws. I knew I was running the risk of overheating due to an uneven heat transfer between the chip and the heatsink, but I also suspected the chip had some sort of heat management logic built in, and would probably run at a slower clock speed if it saw a heat spike. Indeed, that’s what happened: my iMac was a little bit slower in the interim.

So, I finished re-assembling all the parts and my iMac was back in business, but that wasn’t all of the story, because it would have been too easy… The heatsink assembly arrived, but the back bracket for the graphics chip was too small for my machine (see below). Everything else fitted, but not that. Thankfully, the bracket from my own heatsink worked just fine, but this was yet another kink in the process.

In the course of re-assembly, after once again having to clean off and re-apply the thermal paste, I managed to somehow allow the CPU to re-seat itself in its socket, but this time it was more serious: after re-assembling everything, my computer wouldn’t boot at all and there was a strange humming noise coming from somewhere behind the motherboard. No beeps were given either. This time I didn’t bother to look it up on the internet, I went straight for the carotid, so to speak — right back to the CPU.

I take everything apart and now, not only are those damned little connectors in the socket once again bent in weird ways, but the corners of the CPU are bent, because it was pushed down into the socket by the heatsink after it came loose from its precise slot during re-assembly. If you’re delicate, you may want to skip over the rest of this paragraph. What the hell was I to do? I had nothing to lose. I didn’t know if the CPU would work again, so I took some needle-nose pliers and carefully straightened the corners. Thankfully, there’s a literal safety margin built into the edges of the chip, with no visible circuitry there, just the fiberglass backing (I think). Then I set about re-straightening the little connectors. You would not have wanted to be near me when I did that. So much cussing… I was too busy cussing to take any photos of this step of the process.

I put it all together again and wonder of wonders, it was booting up just fine. But wait, there’s more… For quite some years now, I’ve been pissed off by some fine dust that’s somehow gotten inside the display assembly and has been showing up in the both lower corners of my display. Now the display assembly itself is sealed with adhesive and with special tape, all around its back. It’s not made to be disassembled by the end-user. It’s made to be replaced. It can only be opened up in a special static-free and dust-free environment. Did I let that stop me? Heck no! I was pissed off by all the dust and I figured now that I tempted fate so many times with my iMac, it was time to tempt it once more by opening up the display. Now if you think, given what I’ve said above, that I surely couldn’t have cussed any more as I was working on the display, you’re wrong. I think it was one long, continuous cuss that just flowed out of me for about the half hour it took to clean the inside of the damned thing.

First, there’s adhesive tape that must be removed, all around the perimeter of the display, while being very careful not to mess with the display wiring harnesses. Also, there are a great many tiny screws, all around the perimeter of the display, that must also be removed. Once that’s done, the metal backing of the display comes off, revealing a stack of plastic sheets of differing transparencies and textures that make up the actual display assembly. Don’t ask me how it works that way. I don’t know. But I do know dust had somehow gotten in there, in-between those plastic sheets, and I needed to clean it off.

Here’s where the static-free and dust-free environment comes in. For as I wiped each of those plastic sheets clean on both sides, with a special dust cloth, they began to attract more dust. Hey, they’re plastic and they get charged with electricity as you wipe them, particularly in the dry late winter/early spring atmosphere. I had a static-free mat, but I couldn’t find the special wire that connects it to the house ground to discharge the static electricity. So I worked as best I could, cleaning each of those plastic sheets from the display sandwich while constantly cussing because I’d bothered with this and because who the feck knew a display was made of semi-transparent plastic sheets that attracted dust like a magnet!

I got it done and put it back together, half-expecting to have screwed it all up, but surprise, surprise, it worked! So now I don’t have those annoying dust spots in the lower corners, but I have a couple of textile fibers, one about 1 cm long and the other about 4 mm long, each about 1/20th of a mm thick, clearly visible in the lower part of the display, plus 5-6 minute specks of dust sprinkled around for good measure.

I hope I never have to open the damned display again, but might have to at some point, given yet another design flaw is clearly apparent here: a factory-sealed display assembly somehow sucked in dust, and now that I’ve had to break the seal to clean it, it’s likely that more dust will get in there.

My computer is working great again and it is back to its normal self. I tested it with Geekbench, and while it was slower in the interim when the CPU couldn’t cool properly, it’s back to its usual perky performance now. I’ve upgraded pretty much everything I could have upgraded on it, so I think the performance I’m getting now is just about all I’ll get from it, and it feels good to know that I’ve squeezed all the practical use out of it. If NVMe storage ever drops in price and increases in capacity to the point where I can get a 4-5 TB module for the price that I got my SSD now, given the huge increase in speed between a regular SSD and an NVMe, I might spring for one, but I don’t know if the iMac can truly handle those speeds. There might be a bottleneck somewhere, perhaps in the SATA connection itself, in the bus, who knows… I also don’t know how much longer it’ll last and if it breaks, what will break and whether it’ll make sense to replace that part, at that time. I am happy though, knowing I’ve made very good use of it while it worked.

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Apple iMac
How To

An upgrade to my 2013 iMac

I’ve worked on a few upgrades to our family computers in recent months: my 2008 MacBook Pro, my mom’s 2007 iMac and my own late-2013 iMac (A1419, EMC 2639). This is the tale I’d like to recount for you now, because it’s something that I’ve had to deal with since last autumn (october of 2018), and I’ve just recently (I hope) finalized the upgrade/repair. There’s a valuable lesson in here for the people at Apple Support, if they’re interested.

It started with my iMac slowing down to a crawl over the course of a few days, back in late 2018. At first I thought it was spyware or a virus. I checked everything: every app, every file, every process. I removed apps, one by one, to see if it would fix the problem. It didn’t. I ended up removing all of the apps but those that came with macOS, and the problem still persisted. I wiped the drive clean and reinstalled the OS, then reinstalled the apps anew, one by one. It was just as bad. I ran hardware tests using Apple’s software and everything checked out. I scoured the web for solutions. There were some suggestions online that iCloud could cause slowdowns when the syncs weren’t going properly. I checked the Apple Server Status page and indeed they’d been having some problems with iCloud, but they were marked as resolved. I checked Photos and there were major issues: my photos weren’t syncing properly across my devices, and there were image compression/corruption (?) issues going on, with diagonal blue lines appearing all over my recent photos, lines that persisted even when opening the photo at full resolution.

I called Apple Support and began a series of interactions that did not end with any sort of solution. From the start, they agreed that iCloud was causing the slowdowns and had me go through a series of steps such as logging in and out of iCloud, disabling and enabling the various iCloud syncing options, etc. to no avail. Mail started acting up as well, so they suggested I disable Mail syncing, because I had “too many messages in my mailbox”. Documents started acting up, with iCloud Drive showing up empty on my computer, so they suggested disabling that. In spite of the fact that I’d already done it, they tried to convince me to reformat my computer and start fresh. I kept getting a hunch that something else was amiss and asked them if they were sure this wasn’t a hardware issue. They said no. They told me to wait for the photos to finish syncing, then enable the other iCloud features one by one, and things would get back to normal. They didn’t. We kept going back and forth, with Apple Support posting one update per day (or less) to the case, asking me to do this and that, and even though I’d complete their requests and post more updates during the day, they wouldn’t respond till the next. I offered to pay a case fee to expedite issues. I explained to them that this was my main computer and I couldn’t do my work. This went on for weeks, with me getting more desperate and the techs telling me they’d stop helping me because I couldn’t stay calm.

With things going nowhere and Apple Support techs who couldn’t care less, I decided to exercise the “nuclear” option. I found Tim Cook’s email address and wrote him an email. I didn’t expect a response, but I wanted to vent. To my surprise, a short while later I got a response, not from him but from his office, promising me my issue would be forwarded onto someone who would get back to me. I waited a couple of days and… nothing. No one contacted me. I figured I’d try my luck again. I got the same response, but someone finally contacted me and connected me directly with an advanced support technician. There’s apparently a “third tier” of tech support that is only available on a case by case basis; I guess after almost a month of my computer being down for the count, I qualified.

It took a while longer to get to the bottom of the problem: daily communications, screen sharing sessions, uploading log files to Apple servers, trying various steps, etc. It took over a week. iCloud was at first to blame, then Adobe software, then finally, after my case was put in front of a senior technician directly responsible for iCloud connectivity, my issue turned out not be software related at all, but caused by hardware. Hold on to your hat, because as it turns out my HDD was going bad. That was it. It was as prosaic as that! In total, I’d lost over one month of my time and I had to appeal to Tim Cook’s office, all because Apple Technicians couldn’t pinpoint a failing hard drive from the get-go.

Once the problem was found out, it was an easy enough fix. I opened up my iMac and replaced the HDD with a fresh one. I also found and installed a piece of software called DriveDx, which gives detailed stats about hard drives and can let you know of a bad drive before it actually fails. Most drive diagnostic apps rely on the S.M.A.R.T. status flags, but that’s not enough. DriveDx does a whole lot more. The app quickly let me know that the blade SSD (the second half of the Fusion Drive on my iMac) was also close to its lifespan. Since it was still working okay, I decided to hold off on replacing it last year, choosing to monitor it with the app and only replace it when it was close to failing. Here is a gallery of photographs from the time I replaced the HDD. I also chose to take apart the chips and heat sinks and to replace the thermal paste, which had become dry and cracked. Before I put my computer back together, I cleaned the case and the parts thoroughly with a brush and soft cloth, because a lot of dust had accumulated inside and on them. After I put my iMac back together, it worked beautifully once again. I know I could have replaced the HDD with an SSD, and I plan to do it in the future. It’s just that I want to get a 3-4 TB SSD and their prices are still a bit high.

A few weeks ago (about seven months after replacing the HDD), DriveDx told me the blade SSD was fairly close to failing, so I chose to replace it with a Samsung 960 Pro M.2 512 GB NVMe SSD module that I already had, so this upgrade only cost me about $16 for a Sintech NGFF M.2 NVMe SSD Adapter Card, which seems to be the card everyone recommends for MacBooks and iMacs.

I’ve enclosed a separate gallery of photographs of this upgrade below. You’ll laugh when you see one of the photos, so I’ll explain: in what seems to be an iMac design flaw, the cylindrical bracket that secures the screw for the blade SSD is only glued to the motherboard. Unlike every other screw bracket which is secured directly to the motherboard with metal, this one is not designed into the motherboard. Underneath it, on the other side of the motherboard, there are circuits running right across that spot. It seems to me like at the time (2013), the blade SSD and its screw bracket were afterthoughts of sorts for the hardware design team. My bracket came right off the motherboard. I had no glue in the house, only some silicone-based adhesive that takes up to 24 hours to harden, so I put a dab of that under it, tightened the screw and stuck a wood shim in-between the case and the top of the screw, to hold it in place while the adhesive hardened. I know it looks terribly unrefined, but it’s been working fine.

There are two things I should tell you about this upgrade: (1) this particular SSD tends to run hot, so DriveDx will warn you about its temperature, and (2) after booting up my iMac for the first time, it didn’t see the new NVMe SSD, so I powered it down, opened up it up again (thank goodness I hadn’t yet closed it completely) and re-seated the SSD and its adapter in the blade SSD slot. After I did that, it saw it, recognized it, and I was able to boot into recovery, go into Terminal and recreate the Fusion Drive, then reinstall the OS and restore my data.

In spite of the temperature warnings, my iMac has been working great so far. I noticed a bit of a speed boost, but since I’m still using Fusion Drive and I’m tied to a spinning hard drive, a lot of the oomph of the SSD can’t be seen. I suppose I could have chosen to install the OS on the SSD and keep my files on the HDD, but I prefer to work without complications. A single 3.5TB volume works for me. If I could have a single 24TB drive that holds my OS and all my files (that are currently sitting on three external hard drives), I’d be happy with that.

I would like to thank Tim Cook’s office for responding to my messages and getting me out of a real bind. I was at the end of my wits at the time, so the tone of my emails to them was gruff and biting; they could have chosen to ignore me. I don’t know what I’d have done if they hadn’t stepped in. But I do wish I didn’t have to exercise that option. Apple Support should have found out the issue from the start. It wasn’t something arcane, it was a simple drive failure.

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Events

The time a Drobo lost over 30,000 of my photos and videos

The following is an account of what happened to me in late 2012, when two of my Drobo units malfunctioned and corrupted or erased over 30,000 of my photos and videos, rendering them either completely unusable or making them vanish into digital ether.

I have been a Drobo customer since late 2007, when I bought my first USB Drobo. I was glad to take advantage of the new storage possibilities it offered. Since then, I’ve bought one or two Firewire Drobos, two Drobo 5Ns and a Drobo 5D. After relying on my Drobos for several years, I experienced catastrophic data corruption on both of my Drobos at the time (a USB Drobo and a Firewire Drobo). That incident still haunts me to this day.

If you look through my past posts about the Drobo, you’ll see that I wrote about them and I defended them (speaking from my own experience at the time) when others said, among other things, that they “can’t be relied upon” and they often turn into “bricks” or lose people’s data. From my own experience, I had only good things to say about them. They hadn’t failed me for years, I hadn’t yet lost any data from them, the support was great and their design is beautiful. They are a pleasure to use when they work. Until recently, few things in hardware got me more excited than buying a new, bigger hard drive for my Drobo and sticking it in, then watching the capacity gauge show the new, larger volume and hearing it start to sync the data to the new drive…

Which brings me neatly right to the crux of the problem. I had bought a new 3TB hard drive for my Firewire Drobo and stuck it in, replacing an existing 2TB drive. The data sync had gone on for close to 30 hours and was getting close to completion (the Dashboard software was telling me there were only 5-6 hours left). All of a sudden, a red light next to the new 3TB hard drive went off. Before I had a chance to assess the situation, the Drobo crashed and rebooted. I thought, okay, it’s resetting itself and will begin to work once more. I waited for the reboot to complete, only to discover, to my dismay, that it rebooted again… and again… and again… During those brief moments when it was up, the red light switched places, moving from the 3TB hard drive to one of the existing 2TB hard drives. This wasn’t good. I decided to shut it off completely and unplug it. I filed a ticket with Drobo Support and waited.

This horrific experience came after I experienced catastrophic data loss on my USB Drobo just a couple of days earlier. That Drobo was and had been plugged into a surge protector (unlike my Firewire Drobo, which had been plugged into a UPS). The electricity had been cut off and when it came back up, the USB Drobo wouldn’t mount to the desktop. No big deal, I thought. The electricity had gone off before and when the Drobo wouldn’t mount, I would run Disk Utility on it and fix it right up. That’s what I did this time, only Disk Utility couldn’t repair it. Oh boy… I filed a ticket with Drobo Support. They told me they couldn’t help and that I should buy Disk Warrior or send it to a data recovery firm. I called the firm to get a quote, which they said would be anywhere from $1,200 to $7,900, depending on how much data they recovered. They told me that realistically, it would cost at least $4,000 if they recovered any data at all, and that it’s difficult to get the data off a corrupt Drobo volume, because of their complicated storage algorithms. They said it’s much easier with traditional RAID systems.

So I bought Disk Warrior and tried my luck. It was able to mount the Drobo temporarily, but couldn’t fix it. The error it gave me was that Disk Utility had messed up the catalog file when it tried to fix it and they couldn’t recreate it. I called their Tech Support and one of their technicians stayed on the phone with me for over an hour. We did a Screen Sharing session in iChat, where he kept running scans on the volume and checking the diagnostic files. Same result. Couldn’t be fixed. He suggested I get whatever data I could get off it directly through the Disk Warrior’s Preview feature. I started to copy off the data and got about 70GB off (onto the Firewire Drobo) which hadn’t crashed yet. Then the USB Drobo decided to call it quits and became completely unusable.

Out of over 3TB of data, I was able to salvage temporarily about 70GB. I lost the rest: over 15 years of personal and family information, photos, personal videos, letters, our movie collection (which I had painstakingly digitized and edited from VHS tapes and TV recordings over several years), our cartoon collection (also painstakingly digitized and edited from VHS tapes and TV over several years, and which I was looking forward to watching with our unborn baby — my wife was pregnant at the time; our daughter is now almost six years old) and other various files.

I decided not to send the Drobo to data recovery because the price to recover the data would have been higher than the price to buy all of the movies and cartoons on DVD once more, and because I don’t feel comfortable with other people rifling through my personal files. I didn’t know how much they’d be able to recover, if anything, and I consoled myself with the notion that at least my Firewire Drobo was still fine and I had my work files (my photo library of over 100,000 photos, the footage and FCP and iMovie events and projects from our shows (Romania Through Their Eyes and Ligia’s Kitchen), various other personal and published videos, etc. — basically, my creative work over the past 6-7 years.

Then, my Firewire Drobo went AWOL. As mentioned above, I filed a ticket with Drobo Support and waited to see what they would say. Their advice: buy Data Rescue 3 and run it on the 2TB drive that showed up with a red light next to it. Apparently the drive went bad during the data sync for the new 3TB drive. With Data Rescue 3, I could in theory clone it, then insert the cloned drive into the Drobo and recover my data. Well, I couldn’t clone the whole drive. I tried it a couple of times, but whenever the head came to a certain point on the platters, the drive would disconnect itself from the computer. So I did a reverse clone (where the cloning process begins at the end, not the start of the drive) to try and recover the rest of the data after the bad section on the drive. After that completed and with the blessing of Drobo Support, I called that a “best try” clone, stuck the new drive into the Drobo, put it in Read Only Mode and through Data Rescue 3, began to copy off my data.

Things looked good at the time. The software seemed to see all my files and although the copying process was slow, I had access to my data, which was the important thing. After 4-5 days of data retrieval, I was done and at Drobo Support’s advice, I reset the Drobo and formatted a new volume onto it, then began to copy my data back onto it. It was deemed healthy once again and I was sent a new power supply. I’m still not sure why the new power supply was needed, but alright.

After all my data was back onto the newly formatted Firewire Drobo, I began to access it. Only then did I discover data corruption at the file level. Photos, precious memories which I’d trusted my Drobo to keep were now forever lost. Photos of when I met Ligia (my wife), photos from the wedding, from our first years together… they’re gone now. Videos have turned into audio files (the video track can no longer be seen by video players or video editing programs. Just from the year 2007, I lost well over 17,000 photos (about 80% of them). The same percentage applied to the years 2000-2006, when I took less photos but lost the same proportion of files (about 80%). I still don’t know the exact number of photos I lost, but I estimate it to be well over 30,000. I still dread to open older video libraries in Final Cut Pro, because when I access my projects, I always find video clips that are either missing or completely unusable.

When I updated my ticket with Drobo Support to let them know about this, data recovery services were once more suggested. Now I’m not a data recovery expert, but after you’ve formatted a volume and written a LOT of data to it, doesn’t that make it harder, if not impossible, to get the old data back?

If you’d like to see what file-level corruption looks like, it’s not pretty. Here are a few screenshots. Those thumbnails are all I have left of photos I wanted to keep forever.

Let’s look at this thing from both sides.

The pros:

  • These two Drobos worked for five years, flawlessly;
  • My experience with Drobo Support was good from 2007 till 2012; even though the warranty had expired on both of these Drobos, they took up my cases and tried to help me;
  • I should have had my data backed in other places, I know, I know; That’s exactly what I as doing as the Drobos failed. I was reorganizing files and reshuffling my archives when it happened. If you were to ask me, as an IT professional, what I would recommend to others, it would have been the following: have the data in its primary location on a reliable and fast device, back it up to a server or NAS on the local network and also back it up offsite. I was caught in-between, with no access to my old backups and no proper backup plan in place. Crashplan, the offsite backup company I was using at the time, had been throttling my uploads to conserve their bandwidth, and the offsite backups hadn’t completed. If they hadn’t been actively engaged in throttling user uploads, as was their practice at the time, I could have recovered all my files.
  • Drobos are easy to use and allow one to consolidate their data on one volume that can keep growing and growing and growing with the addition of new drives — that part I always liked;
  • Even if one drive fails, the data’s still safe; I had that happen to me once in years past and yes, the data was fine — that part I also always liked;
  • I should have had the USB Drobo plugged into a UPS, just like the Firewire Drobo. Should have, would have, could have…

The cons:

  • Two catastrophic failures within one week… c’mon, this is ridiculous to say the least…
  • I had no idea you could lose all your data from the Drobo if the power went out, and that it would cost upwards of $5,000 to get it back. Ugh… if it costs so much to get the data back, Data Robotics should seriously consider doing what ioSafe has been doing from the start: offering Data Recovery Services standard with every one of their products.
  • Apparently the newer Drobo products, like the 5D, the Drobo Mini and the 5N, have a built-in battery that protects against power outages, so what happened with my USB Drobo won’t happen to them, theoretically. Well… if they knew about this, couldn’t they have put that battery/capacitor in the older Drobos as well? I sure wish they had taken every step possible to make sure any data placed on a Drobo stayed safe. After all, they’ve been saying for years that they “protect what matters”. Do they really?
  • Earlier this year, a friend of mine wrote to me telling me of his experience with his USB Drobo. It was the very same thing that happened to mine, minus the power outage. He would eject it from the desktop and unplug it from the outlet, thinking that was safe. It was, for a while, until he lost all his data. At the time, I thought he must have been doing something wrong. Until it happened to me. Is it just me, or do we not do the same with a regular external drive? Do we not eject it then turn it off? Does the electricity not go off sometimes, and even if the Drobo is plugged into a UPS, the electricity may be out for more than 10 minutes, meaning the UPS will also go down? And when the electricity comes back up, could we not also lose our data even though we did everything right?
  • I remember jokingly asking someone from Data Robotics in years past what would happen if a drive went bad right after you inserted a new one and the Drobo was still in Data Protection mode. Their response: not very likely that could happen. The Drobo would know that a drive was about to go bad and would give me warning. It’s quite apparent to me now that that’s not the way things work sometimes. Sometimes a drive does go bad during Data Protection and not only do you get no warning, you also get catastrophic data loss. Double whammy.
  • Someone from Drobo Sales happened to write to me to invite me to a webinar as I was in the throes of my data loss. I replied and told him of my troubles, and that was the last I heard from him. Was that the way to treat a long-time customer? An adequate response would have been “Hey, I’m really sorry about that. Are you getting the help you need from Tech Support? If not, do you want me to step in for you?”

This whole affair left me exhausted and completely disappointed. I wasted so much time trying to recover my data and my bearings. The experience has taught me a few things, one of them being the loss of my trust in Drobo. It is a beautiful little black box. It works great and you begin to rely on it more and more, till you can’t do without it; till you think it works so good your data’s going to be fine all the time. Then it fails and your data is gone.

If you’d like to know how I recovered some of my data, I wrote about it here. I also experienced another major data loss event with my Drobo 5D just last month, and that was after more data loss with my 5D in 2015 and 2017. Add to that ongoing file system corruption in one of my Drobo 5N units and the “Drobo data loss package” is complete. I don’t know, I must have unlocked some kind of secret data loss level-up in the data storage game…

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Unscrupulous customer care at Apple

This is one of those posts I don’t enjoy writing but this must be said.

I have a mid-2011 27″ iMac (with AppleCare). It has now broken down three times for the very same problem (its video card goes bad). Other things on it also broke down, like the SuperDrive.

Bottom line: Apple has refused to replace it, although I’ve asked them twice. I think they’re just trying to kick the ball down the road until AppleCare expires. This isn’t the first time, they did it to me with another iMac.

Section 3.1 in the AppleCare agreement says the following:

“Apple will either (a) repair the defect at no charge, using new or refurbished parts that are equivalent to new in performance and reliability, or (b) exchange the Covered Equipment with a replacement product that is new or equivalent to new in performance and reliability, and is at least functionally equivalent to the original product.”

Notice they’re giving no clear rules about when they’ll replace it, although when you speak with Apple technicians, they’ll say three times is when it happens. It’s been three times for me and still no replacement. Not specifying when a defective computer must get replaced in the AppleCare Terms of Service gives Apple lots of backpedaling room, so they can delay that expense as much as possible, perhaps until AppleCare expires.

Here’s what makes this unscrupulous and unacceptable from my point of view:

  • They did this to me before with my iMac G5 (Rev. B). Those of you who owned that computer know it had a lot of issues; most often, its motherboard went bad and needed to be replaced. The board on that iMac broke down three times during its AppleCare coverage. It was in the shop for other issues as well: the Super Drive, the Bluetooth module, the WiFi module, fan speed issues (fans would go on high and stay there permanently). The motherboard broke down for the third time a month or two before AppleCare expired. They fixed it but refused to replace it. Then it broke down a few months after AppleCare expired and by then, it wasn’t their problem anymore.
  • It’s unconscionable for an Apple computer to break down in such a major way, repeatedly, after a little more than a year of use, which is when the problems with my current iMac started. Imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t bought AppleCare for this thing. It’d be sitting in my attic alongside my iMac G5. Essentially, I would have paid about $2,000 (after taking out tax and cost of AppleCare) for a computer that would have lasted a little more than a year. How shoddy was Apple’s quality control when this computer was made?
  • When the video card in my iMac broke down a second time, I was promised by a technician from Apple’s Advanced Support department, that when it happened for a third time, I’d get a replacement. Now they tell me his promise wasn’t documented in the case history so it doesn’t count. Perhaps the technician lied to me at the time to delay the replacement.
  • I’ve been an Apple customer since 1994, when I bought a PowerBook 150, my first Apple notebook. I’ve bought plenty of Apple stuff since then. Is this the way they’re treating long-time customers?
  • Apple has been putting me through all this unpleasantry right around my birthday. They have my birthday on file. No comment here.
  • Apple is one of the richest, if not the richest, companies on earth. They ought to be treating their customers right, because it’s because of them that they are where they are. It’s the right thing to do and they have the wherewithal to do it.

I wrote to Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. No response from him, but a few days later, I was contacted by one of the people at Apple Executive Relations EMEIA in Cork, Ireland. I thought my situation would then be handled properly. No, just insincere apologies and a refusal to replace it. I wrote to Tim Cook again. No response, instead more of the same from Apple Executive Relations in Ireland. That confirmed it for me: you know what they say, a fish starts to stink from the head down. It looks to me like he’s instructed his people to do everything possible not to replace computers, even when they should be replaced. What other conclusion can I draw but this?

I was asked to accept the repair one last time and was promised that my iMac would get replaced for sure the next time its video card broke down. I asked the woman with whom I spoke to put that promise in writing. She refused point blank. I assume this was yet another lie from Apple to delay the replacement. What else can I assume when a person won’t put their promise in writing?

What complicates matters somewhat in my situation is that I bought the iMac in the States but have since transported it to Romania, which is where we spend some of our time. I can take it into an authorized Apple Repair shop and AppleCare covers its repairs there, so technically, replacements should also work. Not that this is a problem. I’ve told Apple they can ship the replacement to my US address. But I think what’s happening here is that they’re using geography and customs complications as an excuse not to replace my computer.

What should have happened is this: Apple should have replaced my current iMac, no questions asked. And out of embarrassment because of the way they handled the repairs on my iMac G5, they should have offered to at least repair it, if not replace it with its modern-day iMac counterpart.

The AppleCare agreement also says this:

For consumers in jurisdictions who have the benefit of consumer protection laws or regulations, the benefits conferred by the above mentioned plans are in addition to all rights and remedies provided under such laws and regulations. Nothing in this plan shall prejudice consumer rights granted by applicable mandatory laws, including consumer’s right to the remedies under statutory warranty law and to seek damages in the event of total or partial non-performance or inadequate performance by Apple of any of its contractual obligations.

Apple is currently in breach of EU/Romanian consumer protection laws on at least two counts, by my understanding:

  1. European/Romanian consumer protection laws mandate that repairs be made with new parts, not refurbished parts. Apple technicians, including the people from Apple Executive Relations, have admitted that they’ve been using refurbished parts to fix my iMac until now, and only this last time have they used a new replacement video card. The woman from Apple Executive Relations Ireland said that to me during one of our phone conversations… So they’ve been in breach on this point from the get-go.
  2. European/Romanian consumer protection laws further mandate that the customer must be offered the choice of a replacement or repair. The choice rests with them, not with Apple. I asked for a replacement, didn’t get it, they’re in breach of the law.

Since I bought my iMac in Florida, I also put in a request for assistance with the Office of the Attorney General there and I’ll see what they say. If any of you reading this are knowledgeable on the matter, please chime in.

I’d like to quote from a recent ad campaign from Apple. Keep in mind the things you’ve just read above as you see what they’re saying:

This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.
How it makes someone feel.

Will it make life better?

We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.

How am I supposed to feel after the way you’ve just treated me, Apple? Would you say that you’ve made my life better?

Couple this self-congratulatory ad piece with Tim Cook’s stating during the WWDC Keynote that Apple is #1 in Customer Satisfaction and that it “means so much” to him. If this stuff means so much to Apple, they wouldn’t be doing this to me (and who knows to how many others).

There will probably be some comments about switching to another platform. This isn’t about that. I love my Apple hardware and software. It’s just that quality control seems to be going down the drain and Apple execs seem to be in risk management mode. Apple computers have traditionally been about two things: design and quality. That’s what I’ve been paying for when I bought Apple products. Now it seems they’re about one thing: design.

I want to make it clear that I think what’s now happened to me twice is not the norm of my experience with Apple; that’s why I still buy Apple products. For example:

  • The Powerbook 150 I bought in 1994 lasted about 6 years before the hard drive went bad; if I fix it, I might even be able to boot it up and use it today,
  • The 15″ MacBook Pro I bought in 2008 is still going strong; along the way, I replaced the hard drive and the two cooling fans, but I can still edit HD video on it,
  • The iMac I advised my parents to buy in 2008 is also still going strong. It had a couple of minor issues but they occurred while it was still covered by AppleCare,
  • The 13″ MacBook we bought in 2008 still works; although the video conks out every once in a while, a reboot sets it straight, and
  • My experience with Apple software has been positive from the get-go; I’ve always found it to be stable, a joy to use and easy to live with.

I suppose whatever happened to my two iMacs was inevitable as their volume increased (making more of everything means there will be also be more manufacturing defects) but the way they’re choosing to handle the situation reminds me of PC companies, and I don’t think Apple shareholders and customers want to see it go down that road.

Still, if that’s what’s in the cards for Apple and their stuff is going to become less and less reliable, then I guess they’ll have to convince their customers to buy their stuff for looks alone and for the real work, people might have to build Hackintoshes, where they’ll get to use the Apple software they love and get the reliability, serviceability and upgradeability that we should be getting directly from Apple. With a Hackintosh, we won’t need to pay extra for AppleCare, which now appears to be a band-aid that tides you over with refurbished parts for the three contractual years only to have your computer break down soon afterward. Planned obsolescence and a price premium? Is that the Apple way?

My take-home message for Tim Cook and Apple: this isn’t the way you should be doing business.

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Why is it that Apple has three messaging apps?

  

Back when Apple brought out FaceTime, I couldn’t get why it had to make a separate video chat app when it already had iChat. Now we have a third app included with iOS 5, called iMessage. Why?

If the people at Apple are intent on making little messaging apps, each with their micro-purpose, then I’d like to suggest some new ones to them:

  • iShmooze: giving people a direct chat line to their boss or work hierarchy
  • iRx: so you can chat about your medications with your neighbors and know-it-all relatives, and get better prescription advice than from your doctor
  • iExChat: for venomous quips exchanged between ex-spouses and other ex-es…
  • iSeeAds: for people interested in seeing targeted ads; perhaps you can work in a micro-pyramid scheme where people can get something like 1-5 cents when they view an ad or invite their friends to view ads; that should be popular…
  • iSeeDeadPeople: photo sharing for zombie and vampire lovers
  • iPotty: for those who love to share those precious moments in the bathroom
  • iAte: see above and substitute food; this one could come with a photo sharing option, for those who love taking photos of said food; in hindsight, perhaps the photo sharing option could be extended to the iPotty app as well, I saw some folks online who would be interested in that.

For a company renowned for its design and the clear focus of its products, I’m surprised to see three messaging apps. Why? Didn’t anyone put their hand up to say, “Hey, don’t we already have iChat?”

Perhaps it makes sense to have the separation, from a software and procotol perspective. Perhaps iChat was designed for the computer. Perhaps the AOL messaging protocols it still uses aren’t suited for the purposes of FaceTime and iMessage. But it still makes NO sense.

If Apple was able to take OS X and turn it into iOS, then take features from iOS and put them back into OS X, then it’s quite capable of making iChat the go-to app for all its messaging needs. Rewrite it and make it work! It’s already incredibly capable on the desktop. It can do text chat, audio chat, video chat, file sharing and screen sharing. I use it all the time to do video conferencing with my parents, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, and I use it for screen sharing as well, when I help them troubleshoot issues on their computers or simply teach them how to use them better. Why in the world would you leave a capable app like that behind and write a new one called FaceTime? And then why would you further fragment that segment and make another one called iMessage? Why?

I’d like to see iChat be the one and only app that does everything this set of three apps does and more. I’d like to challenge the people at Apple to make it work the way it should work, tailored to the capabilities of each device where it will be installed.

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How to avoid nightmares when upgrading your Drupal install

I had some real “fun” today (about a full day’s worth) after upgrading one of my Drupal installs from 7.7 to 7.8. The whole site went awry: the template no longer showed, I was only getting text, I kept getting either 404 or 500 errors when clicking on links, and nothing I did seemed to make it better. Even restoring from a backup yielded the same garbled pages. It’s fixed now and working perfectly (well, not perfectly, because some modules are still in beta and there will always be some errors, but it’s working as expected, let’s put it that way).

If you’re only here because your site is garbled after an upgrade, let me save you some time. There are two reasons (I know of ) for it:

  1. You have Clean URLs enabled and your .htaccess file got replaced. That means the RewriteBase rule is now commented out. Don’t bother to turn off Clean URLs, there’s no need to do that. Uncomment it, refresh your site and links should be working properly.
  2. If your theme is now messed up and you only see text, plus you can’t navigate around your site, you have your site cache and compression turned on, don’t you? Yeah you do, and now the new version of Drupal doesn’t know how to read the cache files, because it didn’t write them. So do yourself a favor and turn the cache files off. You’ll have to use the “dirty” URLs if you can’t navigate to the admin panel, so instead of example.com/admin you’ll need to type example.com/?q=admin, and so on and so forth. Disable the compression and the cache, and delete all the cache files. Presto-change-o, your site now looks normal again!

So, what can you do to avoid having the same crappy day I did? Let’s take it by the numbers, shall we?

1. Put your site in maintenance mode.

2. Always, always back up your site and your database before doing a core upgrade.

I would recommend doing a backup even before upgrading modules. Don’t rely on backup modules. Do the backups manually, and just so you won’t panic when something goes wrong, test your backup method by restoring from it to a separate install, to make sure you’re doing the right things. This is especially important for database backups, where it’s REALLY important for you to be able to restore from a downloaded SQL file.

Before doing the core upgrade, do a full backup of the entire site, not just the sites folder. And just to make it easier for you to restore the sites folder afterward, do a separate backup of that folder, and of the .htaccess file at the root level of your drupal install. And back up the database, that’s really important! If you do this right, you’ll only need to use the database backup.

3. Turn off all site caching and compression and clear the site cache. This is really important! If you don’t do this, it’s quite likely that your site will be just as garbled as mine after the core upgrade.

4. Create a new site folder on your server, because you’re going to do a brand new install of Drupal (whatever the latest version is). Inside that folder, wget the latest drupal tar.gz file and untar it.

Okay, now comes the fun part.

5. Delete the sites folder in the new Drupal install and copy over your old sites folder.

6. Make sure any changes done to your .htaccess and robots.txt file are reflected in their counterparts in the new Drupal install. Or, it’s quite likely that the old thing that you need to change in the .htaccess file is to uncomment the Rewrite Base line. Find it and uncomment it.

If you don’t uncomment this line and you have Clean URLs enabled, your site will either give you 404 or 500 errors when you try to access the admin interface or alias URLs, so this is quite an important step!

7. Restore your database from the SQL backup. That is, create a new database on your server and through the web interface or through SSH, restore your database backup to it, to get an exact copy of your live Drupal database.

8. Now run the database update script. Browse over to your Drupal install + /update.php and run it to make sure the database upgrade is also completed.

9. Now you have some choices to make. Once you do this, you have two working installs of Drupal: the old, reliable install, which you’ve been using, and the new install, which should be working, but who knows what bugs there might be in the code, that you’ll only discover as you begin working with it.

So now you have two choices: you can either map your domain to the new directory or rename the old directory then rename the new directory to match the old. In other words, you’ll want your domain to point to the new Drupal install. Or, you have the luxury of saying “Forget this new version for now!” and keep using your old Drupal install, until they work out all the bugs (that’ll be the day…)

That’s it! Pat yourself on the back. This should have taken about 15 minutes or less, not a whole day…

I hope this has been helpful!

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A lot of teachers in Romania shouldn’t be teaching

It’s been a couple of weeks or so since high school students in Romania had to take their graduation exams — the Bac, as it’s known over here. The whole thing was a huge controversy this year, because for the first time ever, there were strict rules in place to ensure no cheating occurred on the exams.

Not sure if you knew this, but there’s a lot of cheating in Romanian schools. It occurs on a massive scale. 

It got this way in the past twenty years, as the school system got worse. Teachers were paid less, working hours got longer, the classrooms got bigger, and a lot of teachers stopped caring. That’s not to say they were paragons of teaching before that. I met my fair share of horrible persons in the teaching ranks before I left the country to live in the States. Now that I’m back, it seems they’ve multiplied.

Abroad, Romanian students are known as hard-working and studious — downright nerdy, brilliant at the sciences, etc. That (small) group is still around, but it’s gotten smaller. Many of the students with great grades get them because they cheat these days. They have it down to a science. Forget the little pieces of paper we might use to scribble down a few formulas when we were in school. These kids have cellphones with apps that store textbooks. Or they take photos of hard-to-remember pages with their cellphones, and zoom into those photos during tests. Or they text their buddies, naturally. In some classrooms where the teachers have stopped caring altogether, the students simply open their textbooks, lay them on the desks and copy away. In the vocational high schools, they don’t even bother with cheating anymore. They simply write the answers on the blackboard, to make sure they pass everyone.

Is it any wonder that the younger generations in Romania are so easy to manipulate, when they remain uneducated as they go through schools? A dumb population is what every despot wants, because they’re easiest to control. You just have to give them a cheap bread with one hand and point them to a scapegoat with the other, and they’ll obey. Is it any wonder then, that we have such a corrupt political class in charge of the country?

So for this round of graduation exams, the minister of education set a goal: no more cheating. They had proctors in every classroom, and they had video cameras. Anyone caught cheating would be disqualified and would be kicked out.

I think you can guess what the results were: deplorable. A LOT of kids didn’t pass, because they couldn’t cheat. A LOT were caught cheating, and were disqualified. The pass rate in Bucharest (the capital) was under 50% (somewhere around 43-44%). In some school districts, the pass rate was under 30%, and in some really problematic districts, no one passed. Now can you begin to realize the scale of the cheating that took place in previous years?

Naturally, there’s blame to be thrown on someone, and right now, parents and students and teachers and politicians are busy trying to see who’s to blame. I think the teachers are to blame.

Before I tell you why, let me just point out that I interview students from Romania for admission to Middlebury College (my alma mater back in the States). I’ve been an interviewer for years. When I lived in the States, I interviewed American kids. Now that I live in Romania, I’ve offered to interview Romanian kids. How do you think this cheating scandal has affected the reputation of Romanian kids abroad?

How can the folks back at Midd or Yale or Stanford know which Romanian kids applying to their schools cheated to get those grades, and which ones didn’t? I’m not clairvoyant, so I have no way of knowing myself. I’d love to be able to look at the face of a kid I’m interviewing, like Cal Lightman in Lie to Me, and know that they’re lying about not cheating, but I don’t have those abilities (yet?). So this is why I’m very glad to see a general crackdown on cheating in Romania, and I hope this crackdown translates into long-term changes in the education system to ensure no more cheating. That’s because when I look at a kid’s grades, I want to know they’re honest grades, not inflated through deception and through the theft of other kids’ hard work.

The teachers set the tone in their classrooms. They knew when cheating took place. No one can tell me teachers don’t know when you’re cheating. If they’re good teachers and they care about their students, they know. They can see it on your face right away.

But the teachers stopped caring, so the cheating got endemic. More students saw that it was easier to cheat than learn, and that high grades were within easy reach, so they started doing it too. And it’s the teachers’ fault. Instead of doing their jobs properly, and instilling a love of learning in their students, instead of encouraging them to learn and showing them how interesting the subject matter can be, they resorted to cheap tactics (tactics which should be made illegal) of forcing students to memorize paragraphs and pages from the textbooks and repeating them outloud (or writing them) during exams. What kind of a lazy, pompous bum do you have to be in order to force kids to do that instead of explaining the concepts to them?

As a child, I was beaten (slapped hard, my hands beaten with a ruler) by our grade school math teacher, who was having an affair with one of the other teachers. When rebuffed by his lover, would come to class piss-drunk and would beat the kids. He’d beat me, along with other kids, because we couldn’t remember math formulas when he screamed at us, or that we couldn’t do calculations fast enough.

Or what about the many vindictive teachers I’ve had, who if they had it in for you, for whatever reason, would use every opportunity to belittle me or the other students, and give us all low grades? I met just such a teacher recently and I was blown away by how much anger she had for people who didn’t share her view of things, and how far she’d go to blackball them. Can you imagine these people teaching children? What kind of an example are they for our kids? What do you think those kids will learn from them? Hate, anger, vindictiveness and methods of punishment? Or what about unquestioning submission to the classroom despot? Are those the things we want them to learn?

Have you heard of the teachers (and professors) that will give you low grades if you don’t quote their books when you write your papers? They’re such egotists that if you don’t pay homage to their books, you won’t pass their course. Never mind that many of them copy their books outright from foreign textbooks, stealing the intellectual property of others so they can embellish their own curriculum vitae and hang on to their posts or get promoted.

What about the filthy perverts who ask for sex in order to let you pass their courses? Yes, that happens as well. They caught one such pervert recently in a girl’s dorm room, partially undressed and ready to seal the deal — thankfully, the girl managed to get away, but how many girls to do you think submit to this sort of thing just so they can get their diploma?

All I have to do to get more horror stories like this is to go out and ask any grade school, high school or college student to share their own experience. I for one am amazed that we still have so many qualified students graduating from Romania’s schools — these are cogent, thoughtful people, who’ve managed to rise above all the crap that goes on in those places and decide to do something good with their lives. Kudos to them for sticking it out, because it was a tough journey!

My suggestion to the Romanian government is to get to work right now on reforming education in Romania and to eliminate all the bad teachers right away. The more they leave the inadequate specimens in the classrooms, the more they’ll infect the young generations’ minds.

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Java finally acknowledges upgrade issues

Not sure how many of you have been aware of this, but Java upgrades over the past several years have been problematic for Windows users. When a new version of Java came out, the installer would prompt you to upgrade, but would never prompt you to remove the old version, or do it for you. In my work, I’d see computers with as many as 10-12 different versions of Java on them. The user, unaware of the messiness built into the Java upgrade, would leave the old versions on their machine, and they’d keep piling up. You could see them in the Add/Remove Control Panel, but how many people know how to look there, and how many know that it’s okay to remove old versions of Java?

So I was heartened to see that Java is finally acknowledging the problem with old Java versions sitting on Windows machines, and is now prompting users to remove them after installing the new version. See the screenshot below.

Ideally, their upgrade engine ought to remove them for the user, but at least this is a step in the right direction. And to think that Java is being used everywhere these days (even where you don’t want it), and it took all this time for them to straighten out the upgrade issues. It’s a bit shameful if you ask me.

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File corruption rears its ugly head

During the last few weeks, I’ve seen the following error in Adobe Lightroom 3.

There I am, editing photos, minding my own business, and when I try to view a photo for editing, I get the error message you see above: “The file appears to be unsupported or damaged.”

When I try to view the file in the finder, I get the same error message, this time directly from the OS: “The file […] could not be opened. It may be damaged…”

Here’s my workflow:

  1. Shoot RAW
  2. Import RAW files as DNG into Lightroom (LR converts them on the fly)
  3. Process in LR
  4. Export as JPG or as needed
  5. Back up the catalog and check its integrity weekly

It’s pretty straightforward, and that’s the way I like it. I currently have about 85,000 photos in my LR library, whose catalog is stored locally on my MBP, with the files (DNG, RAW, JPG and TIF) residing on a Firewire Drobo.

Fortunately, the file corruption is only temporary, meaning there’s an error somewhere along the way:

  • It could be Lightroom
  • It could be the DNG file format (because I haven’t gotten the error with RAW or JPG files)
  • It could be OS X: I wonder how much testing Apple did for 10.6.5 with volumes greater than 4TB
  • It could be the Drobo: it’s a big volume (4.4TB) with lots of data that’s constantly being updated, lots of I/O traffic

I don’t know, and I hope someone reading this has an answer.

What fixes the error every time is quitting LR, ejecting the Drobo, cycling its power, mounting it, and starting LR. I’ve also tried just restarting LR, or just ejecting the Drobo, but those methods didn’t work.

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SmugMug, are you listening?

I’m disappointed with SmugMug over their continued lack of support for proper export and maintenance of photographs directly from Lightroom. Back in July, I wrote about the Flickr Publish Service in Lightroom, and wondered when SmugMug would introduce their own.

What I was really looking for (and I said this in the post) was a way for the publish service to identify what I’ve already uploaded and allow me to re-publish those photos where I’ve made changes to the metadata or to the processing. The official Flickr Publish Service didn’t offer that option.

A few of my readers (Gary, Chris, Russell, thanks!) pointed me to Jeffrey Friedl’s excellent plugins for Lightroom, and I’ve been using them ever since. As a matter of fact, I’ve switched over to them completely. I use them for all four web services where I currently publish photos (SmugMug, Flickr, Facebook and PicasaWeb). I don’t know what I’d do without them. Wait, I do know — I know for sure I’d be doing a LOT more work and spending a LOT more time uploading and maintaining my online collections.

With Jeffrey’s LR plugins, I was able to identify about 90% of the photos already uploaded to SmugMug, and about 75% of the photos already uploaded to Flickr. In the case of Flickr, I then did manual updates and re-identifies so I could get it to know 95% of the photos already uploaded. This means Lightroom now allows me to quickly identify, update and replace almost any photos I’ve got at SmugMug, Flickr, Facebook and PicasaWeb. This is huge.

There is a catch, though, and it’s a BIG one. I keep running into the same “Wrong Format ()” error with SmugMug, which means I still haven’t been able to straighten out the photos I’ve uploaded to them. Here are a couple of screenshots of the error messages I get. It starts with a “TimedOut” error, then I get the “Wrong Format ()” error, then the upload process aborts.

I get these errors almost every time I try to re-publish an updated photo, but I don’t get them as often when I try to upload new photos. To give you an idea of how bad things are, I’ve currently got 109 photos to update in one of my galleries at SmugMug, and last night, I had about 167 photos. I’ve had to restart the re-publish process about 30-40 times since last night. You do the math, but I think it works out to 1-2 photos per error. This sucks. I should be able to just click the Publish button and walk away, knowing all of my changes will propagate correctly.

I’ve contacted Jeffrey, and I’ve contacted SmugMug. I’ve had extensive email conversations with each. SmugMug alternates in their replies. They’ve said the following to me:

  • It’s a fault with the plugin
  • It’s something on their end but they’re working on it
  • There’s nothing they can do about it
  • I should use something else to upload photos
  • They blamed my setup, which we ruled out after some internet connectivity tests

Jeffrey says there’s nothing he can do about it, and I believe him more than I believe SmugMug. Want to know why? Because his other plugins work just fine. I’m able to re-publish updated photos to Flickr and Facebook and PicasaWeb without any problems. Only SmugMug somehow can’t handle my uploads.

I’ve tried reloading the plugin, installing it anew, removing and re-adding the publish service, upgrading the plugin, but nothing. I still get the same errors.

My question for the smug folks at SmugMug is this: how is it possible that Facebook and Flickr and PicasaWeb have worked out the re-publish issues, but you haven’t? What’s taking you so long? Why can’t you work out the same problem on your end?

I was hoping that with the release of Lightroom 3.2, and the release of the official SmugMug Publish Service for LR (hat tip to David Parry for the advance notice), that SmugMug would work out the kinks in their API, but it looks like they still haven’t done it. I tried their plugin, but of course they took the easy route, like Flickr, and haven’t introduced any functionality that would identify photos already uploaded to their service. Only Jeffrey Friedl’s plugins offer this feature.

This leaves me terribly disappointed. As a SmugMug Pro, I don’t want to bother with error messages. I don’t want to bother with posts like this. I’d rather post photographs and update my SmugMug galleries in peace, but I can’t.

If you’re having the same problems with SmugMug, please, write to them, and ask them when they’re going to get their act together. This problem’s existed for several months. How much more time will it take until they deal with it?

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